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Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities

Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities

by Frederic O. Sargent

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Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities offers an explanation of the concept of Rural Environmental Planning (REP) along with case studies that show how to apply REP to specific issues such as preserving agricultural lands, planning river and lake basins, and preserving historical sites.


Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities offers an explanation of the concept of Rural Environmental Planning (REP) along with case studies that show how to apply REP to specific issues such as preserving agricultural lands, planning river and lake basins, and preserving historical sites.

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Island Press
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Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities

By Frederic O. Sargent, Paul Lusk, José A. Rivera, María Varela


Copyright © 1991 Frederic O. Sargent, Paul Lusk, José A. Rivera, Maria Varela
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-319-5


The Scope of Rural Environmental Planning

RURAL ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING (REP) is a community process to determine, develop, and implement creative plans for small communities and rural areas. The goal of the REP process is to establish sustainable rural communities by balancing economic development and environmental protection in accord with the carrying capacity of the land. REP treats conservation of the natural environment and development of the human community as equally important. REP develops people to plan and develops plans for people.

Rural, in this context, means open or sparsely populated areas as well as villages, small towns, Indian pueblos, and other tribal communities. Environmental is used here in its broadest sense, meaning all the surroundings, including social, cultural, physical, and economic. Planning involves people in the process of assessing needs, inventorying resources, formulating goals, drafting and testing a plan, and then adjusting that plan over time. The written plan is the map, not the destination. The intent of REP is to develop the ability of rural residents to manage a sustainable environment, a viable community economy, and other aspects that make up the rural ecosystem.

This book considers the rural community as the center, the providers of planning and development services as a supporting ring. Local citizens determine community goals; educational institutions lend the services of environmental planners and student assistants to coordinate REP; selective teams from public and volunteer agencies contribute technical data, analysis, and preliminary recommendations.

REP is a partnership among three participants: the client, the planner, and the technical team. The client can be a single unincorporated community, a political jurisdiction such as a village, town, or county, or an Indian pueblo or tribe. It also can be a multiple-jurisdiction area such as a watershed, a cluster of mountain villages, or any other geographic area where people have a common interest in the sustainable use of shared resources. The planner is the organizer, coordinator, and facilitator of REP. The role of rural environmental planner may be filled by a faculty member, a graduate student, a recent graduate of rural planning at a state university, a rural-planning specialist with a state planning or economic development agency, or a qualified professional engaged by residents of the community.

Technical teams are people who have the expertise to assist the community during various stages of inventorying, planning, and implementation. Team members supply data, analysis, and preliminary recommendations. These technically skilled experts may come from a state university, state or federal agencies, not-for-profit organizations, or professionals from the private sector. What is important to the REP process is that the technical team and the rural residents form a partnership of mutual learning. In the transfer of knowledge and skills, each learns from the other. REP allows for the time it takes for this relationship to grow. The confidence that develops from successful interaction between community members and the technical team cannot be reproduced by one or two meetings, workshops, or information sessions. Rather, confidence is built over time by successes that result from the REP process.

Some critics of REP say the approach is value-loaded and biased. Nothing could be closer to the truth. The assumptions and values behind REP are as follows:

1. Rural people place a high value on self-reliance and self-determination. They have experience with techniques for cultural and economic survival. They can make decisions regarding their long-term interests, design and carry out programs, evaluate the results of their work, and make necessary adjustments.

2. Rural people value cooperation as a guide to problem-solving. This attitude has evolved from generations of experience in rural living, where cooperation is a major tool of survival and community maintenance.

3. Long-term sustainability of a rural environment is achieved when citizens guide economic development according to the "physical carrying capacities" of the ecosystem. Land ownership is valued not just for its market value but also for sustaining a way of life. Consideration of the ecosystem's physical carrying capacity assumes that, although efficiency of use can vary, physical and natural resources are finite and can bear only so much use.

4. Increasing the self-reliance of citizens in rural communities can be the basis for sustainability. A self-reliant community possesses the knowledge, skills, resources, and vision to identify changing conditions, locate appropriate technical assistance, and initiate actions in a manner that conserves the rural environment and distributes benefits in an equitable manner.

In planning for rural self-reliance, human, animal, and plant ecologies are understood as the prime interdependent system. The rural community is seen as the conservator of its own resources, habitat, and culture. Local citizens are directly involved in the control of community assets as they plan for the retention, enrichment, and equitable use of those assets for present and future generations.

Conventional large-scale urban planning assumes that growth is inevitable and desirable, that increasing the tax base is a prime concern, and that authorities setting public goals are the planners and municipal administrators. REP employs a more democratic method of determining public goals: people are asked what they want. REP helps people to evaluate what they have, to envision choices for the future, and then to realize that they have the competence and the responsibility to act on those choices. REP results in new and sometimes alternative public goals, often very different from traditional goals.

REP is an open planning process. This means it involves as many citizens as possible in each step of planning and decision-making. As described in chapter 3, citizens define goals and make choices, take field trips to study existing conditions and land uses, hold public meetings to determine preferences and priorities for resource access, development, and protection, and so on. The involvement of local citizens in an open and democratic planning process helps to shape a plan in their minds as well as on paper and thus enhances the prospect that the plan will be implemented.

REP should not be confused with regional planning. Regional planning—a long-established subdiscipline of planning—addresses regions with urban centers or very large geographical land areas such as whole river basins or clusters of counties within a state. In traditional large-scale urban planning, the first step is often a projection of population growth, proposed commercial and industrial growth, jobs needed, housing needed, and the public facilities and transportation networks to serve all this. Land-use maps are prepared and colored yellow, red, blue, purple, and gray to allocate these projected needs. Land left over is colored green and labeled "open space." Open space may include cemeteries, wasteland, or other land that cannot be developed. In REP, the approach is the opposite. First, lands to support agriculture, recreation, wildlife, and soil and water conservation, as well as natural areas such as mountains, mesas, river valleys, and wetlands, are identified, classified, and mapped in multiple shades and patterns of green. Lands left over are colored red or yellow and designated for intensive uses: residential, commercial, and industrial.

REP also differs from conventional urban planning in the methods it employs for determining and developing public goals, in projecting future land-use needs, in the concepts and techniques it uses for implementation, and in the relevance it has to citizens of rural communities. This book, in fact, is intended for use by citizens in rural areas as well as by professional planners and technicians.


Rural Environmental Planning is defined by listing its significant components. The first three chapters in REP, Part I, describe the basis for planning rural environments and how this process differs from, yet complements, urban and regional planning. The basic concepts and the scope of Rural Environmental Planning are defined in chapter 1. The history of planning for rural settlements and an update on recent perspectives are described in chapter 2. How to get started, the role of jurisdictions, and steps in creating and implementing a plan are discussed in chapter 3.

Eight components of REP are defined in Part II. The discovery and development of community goals are discussed in chapter 4. The purpose and process of inventorying resources are detailed in chapter 5. Methods of classifying and protecting natural areas are described in chapter 6, while chapter 7 lists ways and gives examples of keeping land in agriculture. Chapters 8 and 9 present methods and examples of planning lake and river basins. How to plan for rural character, recreation, and historic preservation are described in chapter 10. Chapter 11 expresses the concern for equity and plan evaluation.

Part III focuses on guiding the process of rural development. Ways to assess economic options and examples of growth management are described in chapter 12. Elements, examples, and a case study of sustainable economic development are presented in chapters 13 and 14. The legal framework of planning and relevant case examples are presented in chapter 15.

The chapters that follow provide detailed methods and examples of REP. Because of their special importance, several issues taken up in detail later are emphasized here: economic development using local resources, diversity and equity as the basis for sustainable growth, the protection of natural areas and the preservation of wildlife habitats, the maintenance of agricultural land, conservation zoning, public access to public waters, water-quality improvement, provision for rural recreation, and planning for "rural quality."

In REP, economic development using local resources is the foundation for guiding growth. Development should be consistent with land capacities and community goals. A rural environmental plan requires the protection of natural cycles if economic growth is to be sustained. For instance, instead of draining and filling a marsh for an industrial site, the marsh is evaluated as a flood-reduction sponge or wildlife habitat. The industry is located not on the cheapest land but where long-term costs for the entire community are the lowest.

In REP, economic growth can be a major goal only when it is compatible with environmental well being. REP is based on the assumption that if the quality of the environment is maintained, land values will actually increase. The most profitable use of the land can be developed in concert with the best environmental and social uses. In chapter 2 the history and evolution of these concepts and new dimensions are described. The definition of the elements of sustainable economic development and their application are presented in chapter 13. Chapter 14 then describes an expanded case study incorporating each of the elements.

The notion of diversity and equity as the basis for economic growth recognizes that increasing the number and variety of income sources can help rural residents to guide economic growth in balance with environmental objectives. From the outset, a rural environmental plan identifies and incorporates the public interest. Growth is permitted in accordance with the ability of the local jurisdiction to supply public services, to build and maintain roads and schools, to retain the rural character, and to protect historic sites and cultural resources. In the REP process we assume that the whole public, not just a favored few, should participate in planning and have access to the quality environment that is its end. Methods to achieve a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable economy are discussed in chapters 11, 12, 13, and 14.

The protection of natural areas and the preservation of wildlife habitats are readily appreciated by rural residents. A natural area is any area that concerned citizens (those affected) say should be protected and maintained in its natural state for present and future public use. This definition is vague because each area is unique. Examples of natural areas include mountain summits, caves, mesas, waterfalls, river floodways and marshes, virgin timber stands, habitats for unusual species, unique or representative geological formulations, and other natural phenomena with ecological significance. In REP, wildlife habitats are identified, located, and evaluated. Their protection is especially appropriate in areas that are unsuitable for development because of water conditions or topography. Techniques for identifying and inventorying these unique resources are presented in chapter 5. Techniques for protecting these areas and enhancing their performance are described in chapter 6.

The maintenance of agricultural land and the reduction of pressure for changing these lands to intensive urban use are mutually supportive goals in REP. Specific methods of accomplishing these goals—without depriving landowners of legal rights, without reducing the value of land accumulated or inherited over generations, and without significant cost to the community—are detailed in Chapter 7 and illustrated with case studies.

The concept of conservation, that is, the prudent and sustainable use of natural resources, is generally accepted as desirable by town officials, residents, and landowners in rural jurisdictions. Protecting these resources through conservation zoning, however, may encounter resistance from some rural residents. This book will propose strategies for identifying and conserving areas in order to protect water quality, prevent soil erosion, and achieve other community objectives. Such areas include steep slopes, stream banks, floodplains, arroyos, groundwater recharge areas, wetlands, and high elevations. Conservation designations or zones, when applied to areas unsuitable for development, do not have to deprive rural landowners of inherent land rights. In fact, conservation zones may enhance land values by guaranteeing wise land use in the area. Knowledgeable landowners understand this potential. Principles and examples of conservation zoning are described in chapters 5, 6, 7, and 10.

Public access to public waters is another concept important to people in rural areas. Typically, rural areas or towns with extensive frontage on public rivers, streams, or lakes have little or no public access. While exploring public goals, participants can promote awareness of the notion that public waters are owned by the community, that the public has a right to multipurpose access, and that such access is both feasible and appropriate. Methods for providing significant access to public lakes, streams, and rivers are described in chapters 8 and 9.

Water-quality improvement is a major thrust of REP in both humid and arid environments. Bodies of water including underground springs have often been used as dumping places for sewage and toxic waste. When people became concerned about water quality, they delegated the task of improving it to a state or federal agency. In REP, water supply and quality are looked upon as the prime public health, recreation, aesthetic, and economic resource of a rural area or town. Chapter 9 describes methods and examples of water quality planning.

Provision for recreation is indispensable for a quality rural environment. Traditionally, residents in rural New England could go anywhere in the jurisdiction of their town to hunt, fish, study nature, collect, think, hike, walk, climb, ski, or just sit. If the resident came across a No Trespassing sign, he or she knew it did not apply to local folk. This freedom of movement is being lost as rural areas undergo incremental urbanization with its attendant posting of trespassing signs. With the growth of metropolitan areas and the expansion of communication and transportation networks in all parts of the United States and Canada, the open countryside has largely fallen into private hands, resulting in limited public access. As an example, for many centuries in the Southwest, large parcels of open land were held in common by Indian, Spanish and Mexican settlers. Land grants were not deeded for private land until the application of English law and custom in the mid-1880s. To counter these trends and recapture freedom of movement outdoors, it is necessary to address the subject of common lands directly in a rural plan. Specific techniques to address rural recreation, trail networks, conservation zones, and related issues are detailed in Chapter 10.

Planning for rural quality is a conceptual and functional breakthrough of REP. People often say, "You can't plan aesthetics." However, there has been sufficient general agreement concerning aesthetic value to make planning for the character and quality of a rural community the least controversial section of most rural environmental plans. Most people concur that unscreened auto graveyards and billboards are ugly, and that trees, grass, flowers, and mountain views are beautiful. A plan may include landscaped areas in commercial zones, scenic overlooks or picnic areas, rigorous sign control, tree-cutting controls, and reforestation programs. It also may include the identification and preservation of "sacred places" such as the town plaza, a historic building, or a mountaintop. Chapter 10 describes approaches to and gives examples of planning for rural character, a sense of place and historic preservation.


Excerpted from Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities by Frederic O. Sargent, Paul Lusk, José A. Rivera, María Varela. Copyright © 1991 Frederic O. Sargent, Paul Lusk, José A. Rivera, Maria Varela. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Frederic O. Sargent is the former director of the Rural Planning Graduate Program and professor emeritus at the University of Vermont.

Paul Lusk, at the time of publication, was an associate professor in Architecture and Planning at the University of New Mexico.

Jose Rivera was director of the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute at the University of New Mexico.

Maria Varela was adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient.

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